"2 Pianos 4 Hands," which opened Wednesday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, begins as a comic recital. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, the show’s creators and sole performers, approach the two grand pianos with a solemnity that is quickly broken when Ted decides he wants Richie to trade pianos with him.
This wordless comedy is followed by a duet (Bach’s D-minor Concerto) that goes bad after a few promising moments. So the boys go back to basics: scales. That turns into a free-wheeling duel that sounds like the wild music Tom and Jerry make when they chase each other inside a piano.
So after 10 minutes, we know that Mr. Dykstra and Mr. Greenblatt are funny and that they can play – but clearly they aren’t piano gods, or else they would be over in the Concert Hall. "2 Pianos 4 Hands" sort of explains how they got here: It is an extremely funny chronicle of the joys and frustrations of learning a musical instrument, and it glimpses the pain of not quite measuring up.
After the whirlwind start, most of the rest of the first act is about their boyhoods, which both gentlemen seem
to have spent chained to a piano. The actors play themselves as young men and as a series of music teachers, almost all of them horrifying.
"The relative minor of A flat major is…," drones Mr. Dykstra as Sister Loyola, Richard’s childhood piano teacher. Mr. Greenblatt, as his younger self, stares blankly into space, pulling answers out of a half-dead part of his brain. Questions like Sister Loyola’s get asked all night, and the answers are usually a hoot.
Young Mr. Dykstra is spacey, yet cocky. He practices a Beethoven sonata with one hand while using the other to call his pals about a hockey game; he has to keep up a flow of music or his unseen father will yell at him.
Pressure is the source of a lot of the humor in "2 Pianos." The parents pressure the children to practice; the children have to deal with the pressure of lessons, performing and competing against each other. These aren’t soulful little Mozarts, dying to play night and day. These are ordinary children, moderately talented, running scales and training their ears until you think they will go bonkers.
The play takes a serious
turn in the second act, as both men’s musical deficiencies are devastatingly analyzed during high-stakes auditions. Director Gloria Muzio and lighting designer Tharon Musser help shift the tone, darkening the stage and sometimes catching the actors in isolated shafts of light.
There is a certain amount of affection in all this. The endless drills were obviously pure drudgery when the two were children, but every so often Mr. Dykstra and Mr. Greenblatt play their instruments with frisky skill, and it looks like a great deal of fun. But they don’t soft-pedal the heartbreak here; funny as it is, "2 Pianos" is a surprisingly honest and accurate look at the stresses of youth spent in a musical bubble.
As actors, the men are obviously having a ball lampooning idiosyncrasies of music teachers they have known, and as writers, they often turn the vocabulary of music into a wonderful linguistic playground. The apparent nonsense of "Da da da da, yada yada, yada" is a hysterical sentence in "2 Pianos," where it is a short, entertaining leap from polonaise to mayonnaise.
Be glad Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt suffered tormented childhoods. Be thankful, in fact. Because if they hadn’t, odds are "2 Pianos 4 Hands," their hilarious show that just opened at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, might never have happened.
Based on their experiences as once-promising piano students, the evening is a remembrance of awful things past – vignettes of crazed instructors, obsessed parents, torturous recitals and other high points of musical training. Resentful at first, the boys eventually take their playing seriously, each envisioning himself one day taking his place alongside Mozart, Beethoven and Horowitz. Just when they think they’re looking at a brilliant future, the brutal demands of art and competition slap them into realizing that the best either of them could ever hope to be is the best piano player in the neighborhood. Maybe.
But Dykstra and Greenblatt, who wrote the piece and play themselves (at various ages) as well as all other characters, aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. They’re more interested in showing that you don’t have to be sentimental or superhuman to survive a failed dream. By acknowledging the bitter sadness that will always linger, "2 Pianos" avoids turning into a gooey homily on the need to accept one’s limitations.
The show’s liveliness and strength derive from the duo’s ability to look back not in anger but affection, not with nostalgia but clarity. They zero in on the weird mix of absurdity and logic that always seems to develop whenever
kids are forced to assume artistic ambition. The result is a little more than two hours of big laughs – not just at the eccentric and dysfunctional people who terrorized their youth but at themselves as well.
This equanimity also informs the acting. Both Dykstra and Greenblatt are accomplished, award-winning actors. While it may not seem a big stretch for them to play themselves and people they once knew, it’s still a mark of their professionalism that they play everyone fairly as well as convincingly. There’s not a cheap shot anywhere, just a palpable feel of the authentic, even from the lines like "Stop! You’re too young to use the pedals!"
Gloria Muzio hasn’t directed the show so much as she has – appropriately, to be sure – conducted it. The dialogue has the rhythm and nuance of a musical score, which she alternately highlights or counterpoints with either gesture or movement. Visually as well as aurally the production evokes a simple lyricism. Tharon Musser’s lighting gently takes us in and out of the memories as the vignettes progress. And Steve Lucas’s set – two grand pianos facing each other with columns and drapes serving as a backdrop – grounds the imagination without boxing it in.
The way Dykstra and Greenblaltt seem to see it, their dream dies so that others might laugh. They’re right, but don’t take my word for it – see it yourself. Soon. Don’t be surprised, though, if between the guffaws you feel a stab of recognition.

When the Kennedy Center invites you to watch two would-be concert pianists perform a play they’ve written about their scale-slavery childhoods indentured to the keyboards and the careers they didn’t get, your first reaction isn’t exactly unbounded enthusiasm.
That’s one of the problems with being jaded. You miss a lot of fun.
2 Pianos 4 Hands, the tender-hearted screwball brainchild of Canadian performers Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, turns out to be way more fun than it sounds and, though it’s never sentimental, far more touching than you’d expect. These two prove – gracefully elegantly, with hysterical vignettes tinged with aches of regret – that dreams are worth chasing. And that your life doesn’t have to end when they escape you.
Granted, you’ll have to sit through an awful pun or two:
"How’s your back?"
"Not so good. How’s your Bach?"
"Not so good."
But often as not, the follow-ups make the groaners worthwhile. The guy with the bad Bach, for instance: "I can play the Schoenberg" he offers, uncertainly. "Nah," replies his teacher, they guy with the bad back. "I’m in the mood for a melody."
That the previous skit involves Billy Joel’s "Piano Man" only makes the instructor’s sly swipe at atonalism funnier.
That scene says a lot, actually: 2 Pianos, inspired by its creator-performers’ fraught backgrounds in classical piano, is nothing if not a brilliant fusion of sophisticated musicianship
and middlebrow humor. And a large chunk of its appeal is in the way it builds joke upon joke – it’s got a great comic’s timing and a great conductor’s sure sense of rhythm.
Sitting at a pair of shiny 9-foot grands – or fooling around in the area between them – Dykstra and Greenblatt noodle on serious and silly works alike". If they’re not seguing from Bach’s D-minor Concerto to Hoagy Carmichael’s "Heart and Soul", they’re embellishing a Mozart sonata with that inescapable "shave-and-a-haircut" riff or banging out Jerry Lee Lewis in a rehearsal room.
Between musical excursions both successful and less-than, they draw on a life-time of dreams and disappointments, weaving memories of demanding parents and snotty concerto-competition rivals into an evening of both belly laughs and gut-wrenching reality checks. They impersonate themselves, the dessicated MC of a Kiwanis music festival, and a range of teachers, from the merely intimidating to the downright terrifying. Dykstra’s sister Loyola, who’s clearly tried to teach key signatures to one dolt too many, is among the evening’s most priceless characters. Driven at first by parental pressure, they metamorphose into neurotic arpeggio-playing adolescents and then temperamental, arrogant teens. It’s when they can taste success, when they begin to imagine their names on the Carnegie Hall playbill, that ugly reality intervenes: They’re talented, but not talented enough to make the cut.
Ultimately, 2 Pianos is about getting over that revelation, which is why it seems to connect even with those who haven’t encountered the institutionalised torture of music-theory classes and the unique horror that is ear training. Yes, Dykstra’s impossibly mobile face is no small part of what makes the show work – but what makes it memorable is the heady mix of bittersweet longing and common sense that underlies all the clowning.
There are plenty of musical comedies, but considerably fewer comedies about music.
Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s "2 Pianos 4 Hands," however, is more than just a light – and highly amusing – look at the experiences of a pair of youngsters trying to master the keyboard. It’s also a touching account of the pivotal point when a teen-ager must decide whether the career he’s spent his young life preparing for is the right career for him.
For Dykstra and Greenblatt, the stars as well as creators of this off-Broadway hit – directed by Gloria Muzio and currently at Washington’s Kennedy Center – there is some irony to this semi-autobiographical subject matter.
Both men trained to be classical pianists, and indeed, today they are performing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc., for paying audiences from their native Canada to the United States. But they are performing on the theatrical stage, not the concert stage. And, more than their musicianship, it is their prowess as actor-playwrights, relating poignant coming-of-age stories, that charms the audience.
In the course of the evening, they portray not only themselves as young students, but also their parents, various teachers,
competition adjudicators and, in one case, even a drunk at a piano bar.
They spout the line every frustrated music student has told his teacher at one point or another ("It sounded better at home") as well as the retort the same students have made to parents who insist they practice ("These are the best years of my life!")
Sharing the keyboard as rivals, they kick each other off the piano bench without missing a note. But when they earnestly try to work together – playing a four-hand rendition of Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in a competition – the evening achieves one of its sweetest, and funniest moments.
Smiling at the audience while Greenblatt plays the opening, young Dykstra has a sudden attack of nerves, forgets the piece, hits his head on the piano and bursts out crying. Greenblatt makes a valiant attempt to play both parts, but the only duet they end up playing is one of tears, not notes.
Later, the two are boning up on Liszt for a conservatory audition when they segue into everything from Beatles music to a soap-opera theme. Dykstra is embarrassed when, deep into an all-out imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis playing "Great Balls of Fire," the stern
conservatory examiner enters the room.
The more versatile actor of the pair, Dykstra is especially comical as a young boy, complete with squirming body language and broad facial expressions. Greenblatt is more often the straight man of the duo, but both men – who have been performing this show for two years – have a wonderfully comfortable rapport on stage.
Though some of what they relate is painful, they clearly relish sharing an important part of their childhoods with an audience. It’s as if they are introducing us to an old friend – a friend they may have resented at times, even fought with, but one they ultimately remember fondly.
Plays for two actors are commonly referred to as two-handers, a term that is clearly an inadequate description of "2 Pianos 4 Hands." Furthermore, though the title gives first billing to the instruments, this is a play that could be about sports or mathematics or just about any field in which a child shows early talent that may or may not translate into genius. In the end, it has a lesson for those who studied diligently but never quite made it: You never know when all that hard work may come in handy.